On Sunday the 7th of March I experienced the most moving concert of my life. Sitting side of stage in the dark, I watched Archie Roach perform a raw and heart-wrenching tribute to the life of his partner and musical soul mate Ruby Hunter.
Archie had been named as the Port Fairy Folk Festival ‘Artist of the Year’. The program noted that this would be his official Live CD launch, a celebration of his enormous contribution to Australian music culture. When the program was printed no-one expected that he would be in mourning, having only just buried his wife the Friday before.
This was Archie’s first performance since Ruby’s death, he hadn’t made the scheduled performance the day before and there was speculation as to whether he would make today’s show. No-one expected him to, not so soon after Ruby’s passing - it would be too hard.
At 3pm, an hour before his CD launch, an announcement went out through the festival that Archie would be performing at 4pm. Fitting then, that the concert was held only miles from where he was born in Framlingham, his traditional lands in South Western Victoria.
All weekend, reports came in about the massive storms tearing their way through Melbourne. Whilst the nightly news showed unbelievable images of flooded streets in the heart of the city, people phoned relatives and friends back home concerned about hail damage.
Port Fairy had only seen a few showers over the weekend but Sunday afternoon held that sense of foreboding. Heavy storm clouds gathered in the sky as a brisk change came off the ocean. People crowded into the huge tent at Stage One, where perhaps two thousand or more waited in sombre anticipation for Archie Roach to appear. There was a strange electricity in the air and the big question – How was Archie going to make it through the show?
What was to follow was the most honest, courageous display of humanity I have ever witnessed in a public arena. For just over an hour, Archie Roach spoke and sang about his love for Ruby and his enormous grief, sharing tales of their rich life together. He wept openly, asked the audience to carry him through with their strength, acknowledged that all of us had had our personal challenges and survived.
I have heard great leaders speak, stood side of stage during an address from the Dalai Lama and watched extraordinary performers at the height of their careers, but Archie Roach offered something more – permission to grieve, to fall apart, to be human.
Next to him a spotlight fell upon an empty chair and microphone, honouring the place Ruby had always taken by his side since their humble beginnings in the Altogether’s.
I had come to the festival as a performer, sharing personal songs about my mother Dorothy’s Alzheimer’s disease - something I have often wondered whether to share. Was it too personal? Too much? Too self indulgent? Watching Archie answered my question. No. Music can heal. Sharing real experiences has a unifying effect. Our stories are at once personal and universal, with their power residing not only in their words but in their context.
Archie shared that losing Ruby didn’t leave one huge hole in his life but many small ones. Only earlier that day he said it had struck him that he would never eat another meal prepared by her.
In the damp darkness, the acrid smell of wet trodden grass mixed with human heat rose above the tent. A solitary cricket chirped in the wings. I could see the audience from where I sat – transfixed. A real man, unafraid to show the depth of his sorrow, Archie Roach allowed us to sing Ruby Hunter home.
Back to their mother
Back to their father
Back to their sister
Back to their brother
Back to their people
Back to their land
All the children come back
They come back.
Yes I came back.
Archie Roach - Took the Children Away.